Rice (right), a doctor, mother of six, and wife of wealthy lawyer and investor Isaac Rice, inhabited a spectacular mansion on Riverside Drive and 89th Street in the early 1900s.
This was the kind of palace that promised peace and quiet. Her husband even named the magnificent freestanding house with its lovely gardens “Villa Julia” (below left) after his spouse.
But the constant noise from ships just beyond her landscaped property was too much for Rice. So she did what any fed-up and influential New Yorker would do: formed an organization funded by her own money and rallied lawmakers.
Rice established the group in 1905 to fight the disturbing sounds of river traffic, especially “against tugboat pilots who would use whistles and sirens for personal messages at all hours,” reported the New York Times in 1997.
Admittedly, Rice sounds like a bit of a crank. But maybe not.
New York is loud today, but it was arguably louder at the end of the Gilded Age—with elevated trains screeching, horse hoofs incessantly clip-clopping, and factory whistles, fire engine sirens, and disorderly humans making earsplitting racket.
“Armed with research documenting the health problems caused by the sleep-shattering blasts, Rice launched a relentless lobbying campaign that took her to police stations, health departments, the offices of shipping regulators, and ultimately the halls of Congress,” stated a New Republic article from 2010.
“Initially ignored, her pleas finally reached sympathetic ears in Washington—and she won her battle. New York and other East Coast cities placed tough new restrictions on the blowing of horns and whistles by tugs.”
Emboldened, Rice extended her campaign “to every form of noise that jars the nerves and is not essential to the commerce of the city,” explained the New-York Tribune in 1907.
Rice lobbied for quieter street vendors, less traffic, and rubber tires on milk wagons. She opposed “factory whistles, firecrackers, and boys clacking sticks along iron fences,” according to the 1997 Times article.
It’s unclear how far she got waging those fights. But with the help of none other than Mark Twain, she did get schoolchildren to agree to be quieter when they walked or played near hospitals.
Rice and her anti-noise crusade quieted down after 1910. New Yorkers were still noisy, but cars replaced horse-drawn modes of transportation—and the din of the city died down.
[First image: NYPL; second image: NYPL; third image: Riverside Drive looking down from 93rd Street, MCNY, F2011.33.94; fourth image: Reade Street, 1898, MCNY, 188.8.131.5255]